There is an amazing movie inside "American Assassin".
It's the one suggested in the trailers, and it goes like this: Twenty-something Mitch Rapp (Dylan O'Brien) and his gorgeous girlfriend/new fiance Katrina (Charlotte Vega) are on an idyllic vacation in Ibiza, Spain when, out of nowhere, terrorists strike. In the confusion, Rapp is shot and only reaches Katrina in time to see her executed on the beach.
Rapp's helplessness in that moment evolves into a focused rage over the following months as he devotes his life to getting revenge on the leader of the terrorist cell responsible for wrecking his perfect world. On his own, he learns Arabic, studies extremist ideology, grows a beard, trains in firearms and hand-to-hand combat (and, sure, throwing knives, whatever). He eventually tricks a terror cell into recruiting him. But his long-laid plan is busted when a CIA team kills the members of the cell and grabs Rapp. The agency knows what he's up to and wants a closer look at the kid.
"What'd you think? You were going to jump from cell to cell taking out terrorists? Righting the world's wrongs?" a CIA officer asks him.
Reader, let me be clear, I would watch the ever-loving hell out of that movie. Especially after it looks like the CIA decides to go halvesies on this insane plan and gets Michael Keaton, in the form of former Navy SEAL Stan Hurley, to train Rapp up further at a secluded mountain facility before unleashing him.
This is "John Wick Takes on al Qaeda" and I am 10,000 percent in.
This, however, is not the movie that "American Assassin" is.
All those things do actually happen, in one form or another -- but the movie blasts through it in the first 30 minutes or so. Except Rapp never goes after terror cells because the movie abandons his whole motivation to pivot to an unrelated and mostly generic Action Movie Plot about finding the Bad Guy With a Nuke That Has a Literal Countdown Clock on It.
I get it. Rapp is the protagonist for a slew of successful novels by the late Vince Flynn. I have not read any of the books, including the one upon which this movie is based, but I assume the filmmakers just wanted to get Rapp from zero to badass as quickly as possible so they could plug him into the international explody plotline of the day. (In the books, Rapp is motivated to revenge by the Lockerbie bombing.)
And that's fine. That's franchise building. But oh what a waste of an origin story that could've been.
If we must, here's the plot of the main story. Warning for some spoilers that were heavily foreshadowed in the trailers:
Rapp, Hurley and company are sent to track down a mystery villain who's running around trying to build a nuclear bomb. "There's a nuke in play," someone says. At some point rogue Iranian military officials are involved and the movie makes a lazy attempt at being topical with a couple references, I think, to the Iran nuclear deal. But the Iranian angle is ultimately irrelevant because the real villain is some guy named Ghost, seriously.
There's some complexity added in there because Ghost, played by Taylor Kitsch, turns out to be an older mirror-image of Rapp and a former protege of Hurley, but let's not kid ourselves, this is not a smart movie. (And not a smart dumb movie, either.)
The movie also seems to assume its audience is as dumb as it is. Evidence:
- At one point the "team" is staking out a hotel, looking for a nuclear physicist and one of them has a tablet loaded with photos of people under a huge heading that says "Nuclear Physicist Watch List."
- At least twice new characters just appear in rooms with no introduction and at least once without apparently having gone through any doors.
- A CIA (or maybe Mossad?) agent is flat out murdered by *one of the good guys* in a car and no one even comments on it. While two good-guy characters have a discussion. In the car. Next to the dead guy. The audience is never given the slightest hint that this guy was doing anything to deserve this.
- This is a minor complaint when it comes to action movies, but there's an explosion that Rapp clearly should not have survived and, of course, he's totally unscathed. No one explains or comments on that either.
- The aforementioned nuclear bomb with an enormous, red countdown clock on it.
This is all such a shame because I wanted so badly to like this movie. And it's not all bad. The acting is good enough throughout, including O'Brien who's really the only one asked to do much of anything. Keaton gets to go a little insane at one point and that's almost worth the price of admission just for the spectacle of it.
The action set pieces are exciting and the fight choreography is interesting, if overly acrobatic. No real complaints there beyond some pretty dodgy CGI near the end.
The movie is meant to launch a Rapp franchise, and its teaser ending certainly implies that the filmmakers at least hope that's the way it's going.
If so, we're lucky that nothing is irrevocably broken here. The next film just needs to aim higher and trust that the audience can keep up. The origin story is dead, but the next one doesn't have to be.
In the meantime, will someone please make "John Wick Takes on al Qaeda"?
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